Oakville Zen Meditation

#33.The 4 seals of Zen Buddhism

They are called seals because there are the landmarks of Buddha 50 years verbal teaching. They are SUFFERING, IMPERMANENCE, NO-SELF and NIRVANA. They represent the 4 standing blocks of his philosophy. Everything else rests on them.These words seem weird, complex and esoteric but we will see how logical and useful they are in our daily life. Meditation will help you to discover and experience them. We will see also that they are deeply related and interconnected.

  1. The reality of suffering:

Suffering is a restrictive translation of the Sanskrit word Dukkha which has a far broader meaning. Beside suffering Dukkha also means unhappiness, dissatisfaction caused by illusions, fear, frustrations, worries, anxiety, resentment and most negative emotions that we are expressing during our life. I will use the word suffering in the following discussion.

Where this “suffering “ is coming from? Its comes from outside self and inside self.

Outside self: This is not the main source of our suffering. Among the main causes: accident, disaster, loss of a love one, loss of job, war, etc. There is nothing we can do about them. Life is what it is.

Inside self: This is by far the main source of our suffering and it is produced by... ourselves that is our ego-centered mind. This mind is the ongoing fuel to our illusions, desires, attachments, anger, fear, resentment, anxiety, frustrations, illusions and ignorance.

Illusions and ignorance are the fruits of our ego mind which does not accept or distorts what realities of life are all about such as: 1) Nothing last (see impermanence below), 2) Nothing can be controlled, 3) Only the present (now) exists, 4) No living being has a separate self entity (see “no self” below), 5) Life and its components are what they are and not what we want them to be, 6) Our mind despite being a fantastic tool in our day to day life is also a very deceptive master causing one delusion after another one.

Why this deceptive mind main source of our suffering so important for the Buddha?

During meditation the Buddha realized that by controlling our ego mind and its thoughts we be able to control our illusions, desires, attachments, anger, etc. Looking for happiness sources outside self is an endless quest since one source brings another one and our desires are never fulfilled.Meditation is the way not only to control our ego mind but also to discover our true inner self.

  2- The reality of impermanence: point of view of time.

Just before dying Buddha stated that impermanence was his most important message. Look around you and you will see that nothing lasts forever even if we would like to keep our love ones forever and our surroundings unchanged.

Think for a second:

A seed is transient and becomes a plant, an egg is transient and becomes a living being, a cloud becomes rain, a fire becomes flames, smoke and ashes, the sun gets bigger and bigger, a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, the universe is expanding, good and bad things come and go…and so on. Our human body changes all the time, seconds after seconds.15 millions cells of our body died and 15 millions are born continuously every day! Our skin is renewed totally every 10 days. We may think that we are the same person day after day but just look at your pictures few years back: different body of course but also different mind, different emotions, different needs. Same name but a totally different person changing all the time continuously! All parts of the universe including us are transient and are changing continuously. In fact we can define each component of the universe (including living beings) as a series of successive transient manifestations subject to ongoing transformations… all the time…non stop.

We go from one stage to the next one without beginning and without end. Biological birth is followed by biological death followed by many more biological rebirths in which individual consciousness will penetrate. This is the endless circle of life and evolution, this is the cycle of Zen.

Why impermanence is so important for Buddha? impermanence make everything possible. In the opposite permanence makes things impossible. Why? Because without ongoing change and transformation evolution and life will be impossible: if a seed remains a seed the plant will never grow. If a human egg remains an egg the baby will never be formed. If a cloud remains a cloud the rain will never fall. If a 5 years old child remains at 5 she/he will never become an adult. If the hydrogen atoms of the sun did not fuse and disappear to produce helium the sun will not exist. Evolution is a series of continuous changes and transformation affecting everything or it cannot be called evolution but stagnation. Without it life in any form will be impossible.

Everything must be transient to allow ongoing evolution and production of life. Change is the only permanent fact in the universe. This is a great paradox.

3-The reality of “No Self” point of view of “emptiness”= “empty of separate self”

 In our self centered hedonistic ego maniac modern civilization the “I- me-myself” is a “raison d’etre” a must and the Zen Buddhist reality of no-self might seem strange and can be difficult to understand and to accept.

Maybe a simple definition of no-self will help.

Nothing in the universe including living beings has a permanent (again impermanence) separate, independent, unique self entity or self existence. This is no self or “emptiness” or “ being empty of separate and unique self” ...think about it and let us take for example a flower to understand this important reality.

This flower does not have a permanent, separate, independent, unique self existence. Its exists because the wind or a bird brought a seed in the ground, because of the light and heat of the sun, because of the rain, because of the CO2 and nutrients from the soil, etc…etc Same for us: we exist because of millions of external factors which created us and maintain us alive. Our DNA contains our ancestors for the last (and our future); We cannot live without the 02 from the oceans and from the trees; we cannot survive without the sun, the food from the soil the water from the rain. We exist because we are part and consequence of the cosmos. The sun exists because of the trillions of atoms of hydrogen fusionning. A wave exists because it is part of the ocean and so on.

Why No-Self is so important for Buddha? Because without a permanent, separate, independent, unique self entity we are “empty” of self meaning that we are all interconnected and linked together. We are one. “This one contains all, this is True Self – that is the insight of Buddhism “ says Thich Nhat Hanh We are inter-being rather than being. We suffer because we are controlled by our conceptual, deceptive ego-centered mind acting as a prison. We suffer because we have the illusion of being unique, from birth and death. We suffer because we want more and more for ourselves all the time, because we do not like ourselves or others, because we want to be different. Get rid off of all of this and you will realize freedom and happiness. If we realize like the flower that we contain everything around us fear of not having, fear of being alone, fear of aging, fear of dying disappear. Being one is very good news. The illusion of being separated is a main factor of our worries.

Being one includes also our consciousness. Each living being has an individual consciousness and all of our individual ones form the collective consciousness controlling everything.

4- The reality of Nirvana : point of view of state of: no time + no independent entity.

Nirvana does not mean fun, ecstasy and ongoing pleasure. Its exact translation is extinction…but extinction of what you may ask? If you go back to the reality of impermanence and no-self you will have the answer.

Nirvana is a state resulting from the extinction of 3 elements.

  • Extinction of our illusions (see #1) such as believing that each of us has a permanent,  independent, unique, separate  self entity. That’s good news since we are “more” than a single entity.
  • Extinction of our conceptual, deceptive ego-centered mind. This is also good news since our mind is the main source of our desire, anger, illusion, fear and ignorance (not knowing the 4 seals).
  • Extinction of all concepts such as beginning and end, birth and death since we are one and will be one forever. This is again good news. How this state of extinction can be achieved? Only by practicing our daily meditation.

" To discover awakening is to discover your true self

                      To discover your true self is to meditate & practice Zen

                                    To meditate & practice Zen is to study your own self

                                    To study your own self is to forget your self"

See Dharma talk :”To find yourself is to forget yourself”

Is Nirvana important for Buddha?  Yes and no.

2 points of caution here:

  • Do not practice Zen Buddhist to achieve nirvana. In fact we may or may not experience it during our lifetime!
  • If nirvana remains a concept or become an attachment in your daily practice you are deceiving yourself since your ego self centered mind is still controlling you.

State of nirvana is more an experience based on proper Zen Buddhist practice rather than a selfish desire or goal. Remember this: we have to forget ourselves in order to discover our True Self.

One should look for nirvana not as a personal goal but as a mean to help others.


Ven. Ji Gong Sunim.